St. Paul Summarizes the Old Testament

I. Acts 13
Today’s First Reading, from Acts 13, finds St. Paul and his companions in the synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath. After “the reading of the law and the prophets,” the men are asked if any of them has “a word of exhortation” to share. Paul then gets up, motions with his hand, and says (Acts 13:16-23):

Fellow Israelites and you others who are God-fearing, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and exalted the people during their sojourn in the land of Egypt. With uplifted arm he led them out of it and for about forty years he put up with them in the desert. When he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance at the end of about four hundred and fifty years. After these things he provided judges up to Samuel (the) prophet. Then they asked for a king. God gave them Saul, son of Kish, a man from the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. Then he removed him and raised up David as their king; of him he testified, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will carry out my every wish.’ From this man’s descendants God, according to his promise, has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.

It’s an incredibly succinct account of the first two-thirds or so of the Old Testament: it covers the age of the Patriarchs, the exile in Egypt, the Exodus, the capturing of the Promised Land, the time of Judges, and the foundation of the nation of Israel. Frankly, if you’ve ever tried to explain what the Old Testament is all about, this is a pretty great summary (particularly since it’s apparently given impromptu). But then he shows the meaning of the Old Testament. That God was slowly revealing Himself to the people of Israel, and establishing a lineage by which to bring Israel’s savior, Jesus, into the world. But Paul realizes also that the Israel that Jesus came to save isn’t just the ethnic Israelites. For this reason, he addresses everyone assembled in worship: both “fellow Israelites and you others who are God-fearing.”

Then, starting with John the Baptist and Jesus’ public ministry, up through His Death and Resurrection, Paul then delves into some of the many ways in which the Old Testament pointed to Jesus (Acts 16:24-41):

John heralded his coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel; and as John was completing his course, he would say, “What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.”

My brothers, children of the family of Abraham, and those others among you who are God-fearing, to us this word of salvation has been sent. The inhabitants of Jerusalem and their leaders failed to recognize him, and by condemning him they fulfilled the oracles of the prophets that are read sabbath after sabbath. For even though they found no grounds for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him put to death, and when they had accomplished all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and placed him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. These are (now) his witnesses before the people.

We ourselves are proclaiming this good news to you that what God promised our ancestors he has brought to fulfillment for us, (their) children, by raising up Jesus, as it is written in the second psalm [Psalm 2:7], “You are my son; this day I have begotten you.” And that he raised him from the dead never to return to corruption he declared in this way [Isaiah 55:3], “I shall give you the benefits assured to David.” That is why he also says in another psalm [Psalm 16:10], “You will not suffer your holy one to see corruption.”

Now David, after he had served the will of God in his lifetime, fell asleep, was gathered to his ancestors, and did see corruption. But the one whom God raised up did not see corruption. You must know, my brothers, that through him forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you, (and) in regard to everything from which you could not be justified under the law of Moses, in him every believer is justified. Be careful, then, that what was said in the prophets not come about [Hab. 1:5]: “Look on, you scoffers, be amazed and disappear. For I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will never believe even if someone tells you.”

Now, if you go back to the actual prophesies which Paul cites to, they’re incredible. Here they are in order:

II. Psalm 2
Psalm 2 tells how the “kings of the earth” have taken a stand against “the LORD and against His Annointed One” (Psalm 2:2). So we have an early signal that the Annointed One, while a King, won’t be an earthly King. This becomes very important, because God laughs and scoffs at the conspiring of the earthly kings, and terrifying them in His wratch, declares, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Ps. 2:6). So building off of verse 2, it seems that the Zion in question isn’t on a literal hill, but is a heavenly Zion. Then, the Psalmist writes prophetically in Psalm 2:7-9,

I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

The Psalmist then warns the rulers of the earth, and says in Ps. 2:11-12, Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” The Psalmist clearly speaks of the Son as a Savior, and in the third person, and seems to connect the wrath of the Father with that of the Son. This is, to my knowledge, the first time that the Father and Son are identified as such, making it one of the clearest hints at the Trinity in the Old Testament.

III. Isaiah 55:1-5
Isaiah 55:1 is an interesting verse: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” In the context of the chapter, it’s obviously about salvation. But it’s interesting that salvation is described both of a free gift (one you get “without money and without cost”) yet one which still comes at some sort of price (twice, those without money are told to “buy”). This captures the paradox of salvation: we can never earn it, and yet to receive it, we have to be willing to give up everything we have and follow.

Isaiah 55:2 foreshadows the Bread of Life: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” It also makes it clear (with the reference to satifying the soul) that the food spoken about is spiritual. Isaiah 55:3 then says, “Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. “ Note that connection. The saving Bread is connected with the New and Everlasting Covenant. It’s a New Covenant which Jesus mentions explicitly exactly once in the Bible (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). Verses 4-5 then explain that this Saving Food will be available to everyone, not just the Israelites.

IV. Psalm 16:8-11
This is one of David’s Psalms, and it concludes: “I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

So the Psalm is about Someone who will not be abandoned to the grave: significantly, it doesn’t say, “will not die,” and the reference to the body resting secure is almost certainly a foreshadowing of Christ’s bodily rest in the tomb after dying on the Cross — a foreshadowing also seen in the Sabbath itself. And then it says that this Person will spend eternity at the right hand of the Father. Paul’s right that there’s no way that David is talking about himself here, since David’s body rotted in the tomb, as human bodies are wont to do.

V. Habakkuk 1
So Paul has laid out how the Old Testament actually foreshadows not merely a Messiah, but a Messiah who is from Heaven, feed souls, will die and be resurrected. But he’s aware that this message is going to be a hard one for people who’d forgotten their need for a Messiah because of their blind obedience of the law. So Paul reminds them, using Habakkuk 1, of the dangers of turning a deaf ear to the call of God.

Now, this is generally an excellent chapter. Habakkuk describes “men like fish in the sea, like sea creatures that have no ruler,” imagery which Jesus used frequently (Hab. 1:14; Matthew 4:19, Matt. 13:47-50). And Habakkuk also is one of the few Old Testament writers to acknowledge that the saved are destined for eternal life, rather than simply a peaceful death: “O LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, we will not die” (Hab. 1:12). Habakkuk also asks a lot of hard questions which people often have of God, like:

  • “How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but You do not listen? Or cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ but You do not save?” (Hab. 1:2)
  • “Why do You tolerate wrong?” (Hab. 1:3)
  • “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; You cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do You tolerate the treacherous? Why are You silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Hab. 1:13)

In short, Habakkuk is complaining that Israel has become so corrupt, that bad things are happening to good people, and good things are happening to bad people. The unjust are running wild, and they’re destroying the just in the process. God’s response is terrifying (Hab 1:5-11):

Look at the nations and watch— and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.

I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people,
who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.
They are a feared and dreaded people;
they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor.

Their horses are swifter than leopards, fiercer than wolves at dusk.
Their cavalry gallops headlong; their horsemen come from afar.
They fly like a vulture swooping to devour; they all come bent on violence.
Their hordes advance like a desert wind and gather prisoners like sand.
They deride kings and scoff at rulers.
They laugh at all fortified cities; they build earthen ramps and capture them.
Then they sweep past like the wind and go on— guilty men, whose own strength is their god.

So God will remove His hand of protection from Israel, allowing these maniacal Babylonians to crush the nation, in order to sort of smack the people back to their senses. And Paul, in Acts 11:40-41, has just warned the assembled Jews listening that they need to “be careful” so that this doesn’t happen to them.

Now, if I were listening to Paul preach at that time and in that place, and I recalled the dire warning of Hab 1:5-11 and told that it might happen to us, I’d know exactly who Paul meant: the Romans. And in fact, when Peter writes to the global Church while establishing the Apostolic See in Rome, he writes, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark” (1 Peter 5:13). So this identification between the bloodthirsty Roman troops and their Babylonian forebears was certainly not lost on at least the early Christians. What’s more terrifying about this prophesy is that Paul was right: it came true again. In 70 A.D., the Roman troops crushed Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.

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